Not before time, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is consulting on an updated version of its 2003 “anti greenwash” guidelines. Anna Williams looks at Defra’s objectives and the reasons for change.
Who: Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
When: 23 March 2010
Where: United Kingdom
Law stated as at: 27 April 2010
Over the past few years, there has been an increase in the number of advertisers using "green claims" within their marketing materials. This is at least in part in recognition of the increasing public awareness regarding sustainability, environmental issues and climate change.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs ("Defra") is the government body behind the publication entitled "Green Claims – Practical Guidance" which advertisers have been following for the last few years when making such green claims, in conjunction with the Advertising Standards Authority-enforced CAP British Code of Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing, which has its own "Environmental claims" section.
This Defra guidance was issued in 2003 to help marketers devise acceptable environmental claims for their marketing campaigns. Defra now recognises that times and popular environmental claims have changed since 2003, so towards the end of March 2010, it announced a consultation on revising its guidance. This was to ensure marketers have current and relevant information available to them on making clear and accurate environmental claims in marketing materials. Advertisers therefore have another consultation process to keep an eye on over the next month or so.
The aims of the consultation process
By updating its guidance on environmental claims in marketing, Defra has said that it aims to both support businesses to develop robust environmental claims "by providing updated and more constructive guidance", and to protect consumers and businesses from unfair marketing by reducing the number of environmental claims that may be misleading. In particular, Defra's aims for the consultation exercise also include:
- to increase awareness, and use of, the Defra green claims guidance amongst marketers developing environmental claims;
- to reflect new environmental concepts and types of marketing activity that have emerged since the previous guidance;
- to provide more constructive (and in places more specific or strengthened) guidance and examples to assist industry to clearly and accurately communicate complex environmental messages to consumers; and
- to support business, and help to provide confidence that their claims are accurate, relevant and not misleading.
Defra has stressed that improving the quality of environmental claims made in marketing materials is important to enable consumers to make informed choices and to drive the availability of more environmentally sustainable products. Rightly so, Defra makes it clear that false, misleading or confusing claims regarding the environmental benefits of products and services have the potential to undermine consumer confidence in green marketing, so it is important for marketers to get it right.
How could the guidelines be amended?
As with the previous version of Defra's guidance note, the updated guidance will outline the main principles for advertisers to consider when making an environmental claim in a marketing context. It will also provide examples of good and poor practice to illustrate such principles.
The guidance note will be divided into two parts: the updated version of the previous 2003 guidance note and in addition, a "Quick Guide to Making a Good Green Claim". This "Quick Guide" will provide a short summary of the principles of the main guidance note for those short on time!
In essence marketers will still need to ensure that the content of a green claim is relevant to the product or services being promoted and that it reflects a genuine benefit to the environment. Any permissible claim must then be presented clearly and accurately and of course it must be adequately substantiated.
What is likely to happen next?
Defra is generally interested in knowing how stakeholders view the amended guidance and whether they feel it is helpful, user-friendly and sufficiently comprehensive. Defra has also asked stakeholders to respond on some interesting points such as:
- is there is a need to produce additional guidance for particular sectors?
- is it important to understand / consider the overall environmental impact of a product, service or organisation before making an environmental claim? and
- given the popular use of vague terms like "environmentally friendly", should Defra include guidance on vague terminology to promote robust and consistent standards if / when they are used?
The feedback Defra receives from the consultation exercise will enable it to publish its new guidance note along with advice and examples of good practice and to also identify whether further work is needed in the near future on any particular "green" terminology or on any sector specific guidance that is requested by respondents.
Why this matters:
What should hopefully come out of this consultation process is more constructive guidance for marketers as to how they can shape and substantiate their environmental messages to consumers rather than just a list of things marketers must not do. The consultation exercise closes on 15th June 2010 so marketers with an interest in making "green" claims should get involved to shape the new guidance and the examples that will be referred to within it. The consultation paperwork can be found for review at http://www.defra.gov.uk/corporate/consult/green-claims/index.htm.
Defra are aware that there can be individual problems associated with environmental claims made by certain sectors and so have said that they are keen to engage with representatives of different sectors during the consultation period if there is interest from particular sectors in updating existing guidance or developing new initiatives for their sector. Now is the time to mould the guidance that will become the "best practice" your sector needs to follow…
Anna Williams (née Montes)
Osborne Clarke, London